2009-10 season succeeds with familiarity

As the economy tanked last fall, Broadway industry watchers fretted about belt-tightening ticketbuyers and a potential rash of empty theaters.

But despite scattered indicators of instability, the 2009-10 season has ended up with plenty of productions on the boards, with a few new hits (“Billy Elliot,” “West Side Story”) to prove that consumers will still turn out for a hot show.

The key for many of the season’s successes lay in familiarity — either a well-known title (“West Side Story”), a big-name movie star (Will Ferrell) or, ideally, both (Katie Holmes in “All My Sons”).

With people suddenly more careful about spending, such recognizable properties or stars helped assure Rialto ticket buyers that they’d get their money’s worth.

Also helping to break down consumer resistance to shelling out for theater ducats: a wide array of discount programs, which got a boost in prominence thanks to high-profile offers such as Disney’s Kids Go Free.

Broadway’s 2008-09 season kicked off with some early turbulence, as a generous handful of planned offerings (“Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “Brigadoon”) postponed or threw in the towel. Some of them — including scuttled revivals of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and “Godspell” — cited investor pullouts as the cause of the trouble.

Then in January, an unusually large number of productions closed, including “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Hairspray” and “Spring Awakening.”

But worries of vacant Broadway real estate proved premature as a slew of productions opening in March and April turned the spring slate into one of the busiest in years. The quickest route to profitability: limited engagements of star-driven play revivals. Plays cost less than splashy tuners to mount, and a celeb actor helps drive business toward revived titles that already have a profile among audiences.

At least three plays are doing tunerlike biz, with James Gandolfini starrer “God of Carnage” producing weekly grosses of $700,000-plus and “Exit the King” with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon bringing in more than $500,000. Those two shows got good reviews, but mixed notices haven’t dented the $600,000-plus weekly grosses of “Blithe Spirit,” starring Angela Lansbury.

The lukewarm crix response to “33 Variations,” however, has muted Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway; the show hovers around the $300,000 mark. Outright pans have kept “Impressionism” in that middling range despite the presence of Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons. And pity Neil LaBute. His well-reviewed “Reasons to Be Pretty,” sans stars, takes in less than $200,000 a week.

In terms of weekly sales, the big earners are always musicals, and this year “Billy Elliot” and “West Side Story” are the two biggest of the new season’s offerings. So far both shows have regularly grossed more than $1 million per week, joining the ranks of hits “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Jersey Boys.”

The power of tried and true is being tested with the new musical “Next to Normal.” It opened April 15 to rave reviews and eschews not only movie stars but also any movie pedigree whatsoever. Will auds flock to a title that never graced a multiplex marquee? The Shubert Alley jury is out on this one’s B.O. potential, but right now it’s the one most likely to beat “Billy Elliot” in the Tony derby.

Defying expectations of box office bonanza, on the other hand, was “Shrek the Musical.” Although the first legit outing from the theatrical arm of DreamWorks Animation is based on the company’s mega-popular CG pics, audiences have not flocked in the numbers industry watchers expected.

From the start, though, “Shrek” producers have been unafraid to offer unusually good deals on tickets.

The Disney Kids Go Free program, which ran this spring at the company’s three Broadway productions, offered a free children’s ticket with the purchase of one adult ticket — no small thing given that kids make up a major segment of the Disney theatergoing demo.

The initiative met with success early, bringing in $1 million in ticket sales to “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Little Mermaid” in just three days. Disney recently followed up with $15 for 15, a program that offered $15 companion tickets to a variety of spring performances, in part to pump sales at weekday shows before the boost that traditionally comes during the tourist-heavy summer months.

Also this season, the Broadway League’s Kids Night on Broadway, a ticket deal similar to the Disney package, was upped from once a year to monthly. Impulse buys also became an option, with a new email program called LunchTix sending out low-price Broadway offers that expire at 3 p.m. that day.

According to the Broadway League, overall sales for the season so far are down about 5%-8% — which actually isn’t bad, given the shuttering of so many shows in the winter followed by the lower-grossing preview periods for all the new offerings.

Gotham tourism organization NYC & Co. estimates that tourism will be off by 2 million, or about 5%, in 2009. But with tourists accounting for 65% of Rialto sales, legit producers are still holding their breath to a degree.

“It’s really just seeing if in fact tourism does only go down by 2 million,” says Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the league. “We really won’t know until the summer.”

Robert Hofler contributed to this report.

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